Congressional Reform Act of (fill in the year of your choice here)

The same email, titled either “The (proposed) Congressional Reform Act of 20xx” or “This Is a Good Start,” has been going around since at least 2011 and I’m so tired of responding to it that I’m posting this on my blog so I can just link to it every time I receive the same email, which will doubtless live on for years, maybe decades.  Here is the gist of it:

1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.
2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.
3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.
6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

The email is mostly nonsense and in some cases is actually right wing propaganda. Congress has a defined benefit pension plan that is similar to other such plans in the public and private sectors.  It’s the same plan that all federal employees get and similar to that of most state and local workers. It is based on the number of years of service and the average of their three highest earning years.  If they only serve two years, their pension is about 4% of their two years salary or about $3480 per year.  They can begin collecting at age 50.  By law, their pension cannot exceed 80% of their salary at time of retirement, regardless of how many years they serve.

There’s nothing wrong with getting a defined benefit pension.  Rather than bitching because policemen, firemen and teachers get such pensions, EVERYONE should be pressing their employers to do provide a similar retirement security benefit.  They can be perfectly sound and economically feasible if properly managed.  One of the greatest travesties ever foisted upon working people by corporate America was the replacement of pensions with 401Ks.  Wall Street wreaked havoc on these in 2008 and Congress does the same every time they play their game of chicken with the debt ceiling.

Congress has participated in SS just like everyone else sine 1984.  It’s a right wing myth that they don’t.

Congress can’t “vote themselves a pay raise.”  They have to vote NOT to take it.  Yes, this is a crock.  However, they have voted not to take it every year since 2008.  They have voted not to accept raises in seven of the last twenty-two years.  And it’s not some arbitrary number they make up.  It’s indexed to the Employment Cost Index, which is calculated based on private sector salaries.  The last couple of increases have been 2.7% and 2.2%.

Just what is “the same health care system as the American people?”  Hey, I got mine, you can just go to hell?  Congress has the exact same health care benefit as all federal employees.  No more, no less.  Yes, it’s a travesty that 46 million people still have no insurance, and Congress SHOULD fix that, but their health insurance is essentially no different than what I got as an employee of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.

And no, Congress did NOT exempt themselves from the Affordable Care ACT (aka ACA or Obamacare).  In fact, it SPECIFICALLY REQUIRED that they give up the insurance that all federal employees have and purchase instead insurance from the same exchanges that are provided by the ACA.  However, portions of whatever plan they opt to purchase are partially paid for by the government, just like those of all other federal employees and, in fact, like most private sector employees who get insurance through their employers.

I know of no law that isn’t technically applicable to Congress AND everyone else, other than they don’t have to pay postage for official business (Franking privilege).  Since almost everything is electronic now, who really gives a damn about that?  Any other laws that they manage to skirt are directly attributable to their being in positions of wealth and power, no different than, say, Wall Street Bankers or corporate CEOs.  Yes, all of those should be subject to the same legal scrutiny as the average schmo, but that’s a deficiency of our society at large, not just Congress.  The wealthy and powerful just get a better shake.  It’s something we need to correct, but it’s not exclusive to Congress.

Yes, Congress is really @#$%ed up.  Yes, the scheme for (almost) automatic pay raises is a sham.  But this email is a bunch of ill-informed, mostly right-wing hogwash  that will do nothing to improve governance.  You want to fix government?  Get corporate, lobbyist and – and yes, union – money out of politics.  Limited individual contributions only, and maybe term limits, as well.  Best fix?  Publicly funded elections. But I suggest you not hold your breath on that one.

You can read about most of this yourself here:  LINK1   LINK2  LINK3  LINK4

 

Voter Suppression

Pennsylvania has enacted a voter ID law that will render an estimated 750,000 of its citizens ineligible to vote.  The law is being challenged in court this week.  Interestingly, the state signed a statement as the case goes to court agreeing that there:

“have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states.”

Additionally, the agreement states that Pennsylvania:

“will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere” or even argue “that in person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of the Photo ID law.”

So then, I would ask, just what in hell is the point of the law, other than to disenfranchise three quarters of a million otherwise eligible voters?  You conservatives who support this, do you agree that you condone this blatantly unconstitutional act SOLELY on the basis that it almost certainly would deny more potential Democratic voters than Republican and therefore is nothing more than an attempt to unfairly game the upcoming election?  If so, then you can’t really claim that you support the Constitution or representative democracy.  No, you believe in dictatorship of people who think like you.

Uh-Oh

Scientists have determined that there WILL be an apocalypse, after all.  It will occur at the moment when the force of dark energy – that phenomenon that is causing all the objects in the universe to move away from each other (the expanding universe) – becomes so great that it overcomes the four fundamental forces holding everything together: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.  When this happens, all objects in the universe, right down to the must fundamental particles, will be ripped apart in a monumental cataclysm.

Fortunately, this is expected to occur long after we have exhausted our Social Security and Medicare benefits and relocated to the other side of the grass – 16 to 22 billion years from now.  From their dungeons down in hell, where – as Dante so eloquently reported – they’re being force fed the boiling excrement of liberals and oppressed minorities for eternity, conservatives will claim it was all Obama’s fault.

And here is what most of the rest of us will be doing:

Mitt Romney – He’s Not Talking

On April 4, 2012, in remarks to the Newspaper Association of America, Mitt Romney made the following statement:

“Unlike President Obama, you don’t have to wait until after the election to find out what I believe in – or what my plans are.”

Only one week later, however, Romney declined to respond to a direct question on whether he supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides legal recourse for women who, in violation of federal law, are denied wages equal to those of men doing equal work for the same employer.  Ironically, this gaffe occurred the same week that Republicans began a feeble attempt to push back on the concept that their party was engaged in a “war on women” (LINK  LINK  LINK  LINK  LINK).

More recently, Romney has stumbled badly trying to explain his criticism of the president’s recent order halting deportations of immigrants illegally brought to this country as children, many of whom have become model citizens.  Curiously, the candidate says only that he will put “something” long term in place which will be “better,” but spells out few details other than that those who serve in the military will get special treatment and that he will complete the border fence.  How’s that for being clear about what he believes in and what his plans are?

Romney HAS said SOME things he wants to do as president.  He’s said he wants to cut taxes even more, eliminate the deficit and increase military spending.  Okay, everyone already knows (don’t you?) that we’re running a deficit on the order of $1.3 trillion, which means that we’re spending that much more than we’re collecting in taxes.

To anyone with more than a first grade sense of arithmetic, then, quickly comes the question: Just what are you going to cut in order to reduce taxes even more, increase already bloated military spending AND eliminate the deficit?  Hey, food stamps, foreign aid and health insurance for poor kids won’t get you even 10% of the way there.  So what’s it gonna be? Social Security?  Medicare?  Your home mortgage interest deduction on your income tax? Employers’ tax deductions for providing insurance to their workers?

Those are the biggies, the only ones (other than defense) that you can cut that will make a big enough difference to come close to what Romney SAYS he wants.  Well, wait.  You COULD cut 100% of Medicaid.  But most of that goes for two things: (1) the elderly and (2) the disabled.  More than half of all nursing home patients are covered by Medicaid (no, Medicare DOESN’T cover that, Medicaid does and only for people with no money and no assets).  It also covers many people on critical life support (remember Terri Shiavo?).

So, is he going to unplug grandpa and toss granny out into the street?  No?  Then what IS he going to cut?  You guessed it.  He won’t say what his plans are.  Guess you’ll just have to wait until after the election.

Elect Republicans and Cut Taxes

That’s what those of you intending to vote Republican are going for, right?  HERE is an interview with one of your gurus, Rand Paul (R-KY), who wants to do just that.  Now, I know you guys have WAY too short of attention spans to read all that, so let me just cut to the operative quote for you:

“Democrats think working with us on Social Security will bring a compromise. They think we want changes to Social Security and we will agree to bring taxes up. This is wrong-headed. We are not jumping up and down to reform entitlements; we want to fix them because they are broken.”

And by “fix them,” he clearly means “cut them,” because, as he says, any notion that Republicans will “agree to bring taxes up” in order to accomplish that is “wrong-headed.”

Now, you guys understand, right, that there are two big “entitlements,” Social Security and Medicare?  According to the Washington Post, Paul’s plan would:

“… cut the average Social Security recipient’s benefits by nearly 40 percent, reduce defense spending by nearly $100 billion below a level the Pentagon calls “devastating,” and end the current Medicare program in two years — even for current recipients, according to the Senate Budget Committee staff. It would eliminate the education, energy, housing and commerce departments, decimate homeland security, eviscerate programs for the poor, and give the wealthy a bonanza by reducing tax rates to 17 percent and eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends.”

Now, I know all of you can take a 40% hit in Social Security.  And you do understand, right, that your existing medical insurance reverts to a “Medicare supplemental” policy at age 65, which only covers the 20% that Medicare doesn’t?  And, of course, you can live with that when “Medicare is ended in two years,” right?  And nobody really cares if Housing, Commerce, Education and Energy are eliminated or whether Defense and Homeland Security are “devastated,” much less whether programs for the poor are “eviscerated” or the rich get even MORE tax cuts, but COME ON – have mercy on those of use who can’t take that 40% SS cut, will ya?

I have only two other comments:

Be damn careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.

AND

You don’t always get the government you NEED, but you almost always DO get the government you DESERVE.

 

The Obama Economy

So, you buy Mitt Romney’s argument that Obama has messed up the economy?  Made it worse?  By what measure do you come to that conclusion?  Yes, employment is still around 8% and it SEEMS like we’re still in a recession.  But the fact is that the economy is actually growing.  No, not as fast as we’d like it to, but growing nonetheless.  Of course, if you look at the actual data, the top 1% is getting almost all the benefit of this growth while the rest of us just get by.

Now, Republicans and their presumptive nominee want to institute programs of severe austerity, cutting government, laying off workers and lowering taxes on the wealthy.  They say that such measures will stimulate growth and create jobs, but will it actually?  Well, George W. Bush tried half of that (lowering taxes while increasing government spending and employment) and we see where that got us.  And, if you look at Europe, they’re actually trying the OTHER half (laying off government employees and slashing spending) and THAT’S not working either.

Now note the graph below.  The blue line shows GDP growth for the Euro zone – those countries that use the Euro as their currency – and the red line does the same for the UK – which still uses the pound.  Neither of these economies has matched U.S. economic growth (yellow line) since Obama took office.

Now, look at the UK line in particular.  Following the onset of the Great Recession (2008-2009), its economic recovery was seemingly underway … until about 2010.  What happened then?  Why the current conservative government of David Cameron took office and began a program of severe austerity, slashing programs and laying off hundreds of thousands of government employees.  Since then, their economy has faltered, actually CONTRACTING for the last two quarters, which – by textbook definition – means that Cameron’s conservative policies have RETURNED Britain to an economic condition of recession.

So, you’re saying you might actually be considering voting for the proponents of policies that not only almost led to worldwide Economic Armageddon in 2001-2008 but also aren’t working now in Europe?  How many times do you have to touch the hot stove before you finally learn that doing so will burn the absolute SHIT out of you?

Meet the 1% and where income disparity comes from

People have widely disparate impressions of what constitutes the 1%.  Okay, here’s what I always like to see.  These numbers are gathered from official IRS data for 2010 by Emmanuel Saez, Professor of Economics at Cal-Berkeley.

Percentile threshold Income threshold Income Groups Number of families Average income in each group
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
A. Income including realized capital gains (from Table A6)
Full Population 156,167,000 $51,550
Bottom 90% 140,550,300 $29,840
Top 10% $108,024 Top 10-5% 7,808,350 $125,627
Top 5% $150,400 Top 5-1% 6,246,680 $205,529
Top 1% $352,055 Top 1-0.5% 780,835 $418,378
Top .5% $521,246 Top 0.5-0.1% 624,668 $798,120
Top .1% $1,492,175 Top 0.1-0.01% 140,550 $2,802,020
Top .01% $7,890,307 Top 0.01% 15,617 $23,846,950

To help you interpret, columns 1 & 2 show you that, if you made $108,024 in 2010, you were in the top 10%.  If you made $150,400, you were in the top 5%.  To be in the top 1%, you had to earn $352,000, and so on.

Columns 3, 4, & 5 tell you that there were a total of 156,167,000 households that filed returns, 140,550,300 of whom constituted the bottom 90%.  The average income overall was $51,550 and for the bottom 90%, it was $29,840.  The bottom half of the top 10% (10-5%) had 7.8 million families with an average income of $125,627.  The four percent just above that had 6.2 million households averaging $205,529.  In the bottom half of the top 1% were 780,835 families averaging $798,120, and so on.

Now, here is a graph by Arizona Political Science professor, Lane Kenworthy.  It shows how both GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and median family income have grown since 1947.  Note that up until about 1980, income growth pretty well tracked GDP growth, but has not kept pace since (remind me again who became president about that time?).  Since GDP has continued to grow, SOMEBODY is making money, so where has all that money gone?

 

And here’s a chart from Mother Jones magazine.  It shows how much income has been gained or lost by various income groups owing to the failure of Middle Class incomes to keep pace with GDP growth.  Note how the amount lost by the bottom 80% compares with that gained by the top 1%.

How much income have you given up for the top 1 percent?

The wealth still being generated by this country’s economy is no longer accruing to the people who do the work to generate it.  Rather, it is going to a few extermely well-to-do people at the very top of the income scale.  Either we’re going to do something about that or it’s going to become the status quo.  It’s our choice.

Be the change you want to see in the world.
–Mohandas K. Gandhi

 

In 2010, 93 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent

Occupiers, here’s a relevant re-post from Ezra Klein of the Washington Post:


(Mike Konczal) In recent months, some commentators wondered whether the national conversation over inequality was coming too late. Early data suggested that the top 1 percent’s share of national income had dropped from 23.5 percent to 18.1 percent in the early years of the recession. “We don’t want to spend years focused on income inequality, only to learn that the financial crisis fixed it for us,” wrote the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle.

The latest update to Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty’s income data suggests we need not worry. Timothy Noah summarizes:

 

In the first year of the recovery, 93 percent of all income gains went to the top 1 percent.

In other words, the very rich had a bad 2009, but an incredible 2010. Their share of national income bounced back to 19.77 percent. So inequality is marching upward once again. And there’s reason to believe this will keep going.

We mainly talk about income inequality, but wealth inequality matters, too. For most households, their wealth is in real estate. Those assets aren’t returning to pre-crisis levels anytime soon. But for rich households, their wealth is in financial assets, and those assets are recovering much more quickly.

Here’s more from Mike Konczal.

Cutting the federal budget

So, you want to cut the federal budget?  Be my guest.  A lot of people want to do that.  After all, the government is just wasting our tax dollars, anyway, right?  They’re spending a a trillion more than they’re taking in, right?  We need to eliminate that deficit, don’t we?

Here’s a snapshot of 2010 federal spending using mostly data from the Center on Budget an Policy Priorities (or CBPP, which, you’ll note, gets it’s data from the Office of Management and Budget).  I’ve added in a few details for clarity as noted below (* and **).  And don’t worry too much that it’s now 2012, the budgets and deficits are similar.  To be sure, the issues are exactly the same.

CBPP presents the budget in six broad categories: Defense, Social Security, etc.  They break out the categories of Safety Net and Other to show the major programs under each.  I took the liberty of also separating out Medicaid and CHIP from SS for added detail.

* CBPP provided no dollar amounts for Safety Net programs.  I provided estimates of the major programs based on Google searches, most of which were taken from CBO or OMB data.  The last three programs (child care, housing assistance, home heating assistance, etc.) I ignored because verifying the numbers is tedious and they only amount to a few billion dollars among them.

** CBPP gave the percentage breakouts for Other, but not the actual budget amounts.  These I calculated from the percentages.  You will note that these subprograms do not sum to the Other category total due to rounding.

So, in 2010, the government took in $2.2 trillion and spent a whopping $3.5 trillion.  For the arithmetically challenged, that, means we had a deficit of $1.3 trillion.  Okay, now you’ve got a pretty decent list of what we spend money on right in front of you.  YOU decide where to cut $1.3 trillion.

Defense?  Sure, that’s a good place to start.  But how much are you going to cut?  $200 billion?  $500 billion?  Don’t forget that aid to Israel, Pakistan and Egypt are in that total, as well as Homeland Security.  Also, don’t forget that there are more than a few people still out there who would just as soon see us all dead.  Cutting more than $100 billion or so from this total is doable, but probably not feasible politically.

Okay, how about Medicaid?  After all, that’s just “welfare” for people too poor, too lazy or too stupid to buy insurance, right?  No, not exactly.  Almost half of Medicaid goes to the disabled.  Most of these people are on long term care and unable to work.  Many are actually on life support.  Remember Terry Shiavo?  She was on Medicaid.  President Bush flew to Washington D.C. on a Sunday just to sign a bill to KEEP her on Medicaid-funded life support.

And more than half of all nursing home care is paid for by Medicaid (no, Medicare DOESN’T cover that).  And before you start eyeballing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), know that it’s a mere $11 billion of the total.  That’s a lot cheaper than taking forty or fifty million kids off CHIP and then having to pay for their chronic conditions later because they couldn’t afford to see a doctor early.

Okay, we can’t slice interest on the debt.  How about those Safety Net Programs?  Buncha freeloaders, anyway, right?  Well, okay, there’s the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits.  $130 billion is a lot of money.  What do those go for?  They are direct payments to the poorest working taxpayers.  If you are working, but you don’t earn very much, you get some of your money back in the form of direct payments.  If you have kids, as well, you get a little more.  Think of it as incentive to work and support your family, even if you have to work at McDonald’s.  Yeah, you could cut this, but effectively you’d be raising taxes on the poorest, most vulnerable citizens – and the ones who are ACTUALLY WORKING!  Bad idea.

Then there’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  This is a Social Securit monthly stipend for people who are fully or partially disabled, but are too young for regular Social Security.  Most have had debilitating illnesses or injuries and either can no longer work or can’t work much.  You gonna cut these people off?  I don’t recommend it.

Then there’s unemployment compensation.  Sure, you can tell all the lazy bums living large on unemployment to “get a haircut and get a real job,” but, unless they’re willing to move to China and work for pennies a day, the fact remains that there aren’t enough jobs for all of them.  Consider also that every penny of those unemployment checks get spent in short order because that’s all the income most unemployed people have.  Then think about the fact that removing that $156 billion from the economy amounts to just a tad over 1% of GDP.  And seeing as how the economy is only growing at a rate of just over 2%, cutting off unemployment just doesn’t make sense, purely from an economic, much less humanitarian perspective.

Food stamps and school lunches?  Forty-six million people are dependent upon food stamps.  School lunches are about $10 billion of that $76 billion, give or take a billion.  You want to cut this?  Go ahead, but first read Matthew 25:31-46 and think for a minute whether you might be separated with the rest of the goats come Pearly Gates time.  Your choice.

That’s pretty much it for the Safety Net programs.  The other stuff is nickles and dimes.  Heck, you can cut the whole thing – tax credits for the poor, disability checks, unemployment, food stamps, child care, home heating, the whole nine yards – and you’ll STILL be only 40% of the way to eliminating the deficit.

So what’s left?  Other.  Veterans benefits and federal retirees?  You can’t seriously cut that, right?  Oh, but there’s scientific and medical research.  There’s an easy $70 billion.  Transportation and infrastructure -  roads, bridges, air traffic control?  Need any of that?  Education – ANOTHER easy $100 billion!  Never mind that most of it goes to help kids pay for college. Non-security foreign aid?  Toast.  Next time there’s an earthquake in some third world backwater, we’ll tell ‘em we’re broke.  And what’s this “All other?”  How about, Congress, the courts, U.S. Attorney’s, FBI, that kind of crap.  Okay, we have to keep most of it, but we can do without the EPA and stuff, right?

So let’s take stock.  Let’s say we cut $100 billion from defense, dump everything but SSI and tax credits for the poor from the Safety Net programs (another $250 billion), cut research, education and foreign aid ($200 billion) from Other Programs and slash 10% of what’s left of that (another $50 billion).  And while we’re at it, let’s cut ALL of Medicaid that doesn’t go for children, the elderly or the disabled (15% or about $40 billion).

So far you’ve trashed a lot of defense programs, destroyed most of the social safety net, eliminated all scientific and medical research, made it so that pretty much only wealthy people can afford to send their kids to college and pretty well ensured that we will be of no help to any country that suffers a natural disaster. And you’ve only saved about $640 billion or LESS THAN HALF of the deficit.  Where you going to get the OTHER $660 billion, Einstein?  Social Security?  Medicare?  Defense?

One final point.  The candidates vying to take the current president’s job have made no bones about the fact that they won’t cut ANYTHING from Defense.  In fact, the presumed nominee has vowed to INCREASE the size of the standing army and build additional ships for the Navy. And yet he has also promised to REDUCE TAXES and ELIMINATE THE DEFICIT.  I see an arithmetic issue here.  Do you?  Where do you think HE plans to cut?  Somehow, I don’t think I need to spell it out for you, but columnist Ezra Klein of the Washington Post does such a good job, I hereby outsource that task to him:

The federal budget is fairly simple. I can explain it to you in fewer than 30 words: Most of the money comes in through taxes and borrowing. The vast majority of it is then spent on programs for the old, programs for the poor and defense. That’s pretty much it.

Mitt Romney’s plans for the federal budget are also fairly simple. I can explain them to you in less than 100 words: He’s promising that taxes will go down, defense spending will go up and old-people programs won’t change “for those at or near retirement.” So three of his four options for deficit reduction — taxes, old-people programs and defense — are either contributing to the deficit or are off-limits for the next decade.

Romney is also promising that he will balance the budget and reduce total federal spending by more than $6 trillion over the next 10 years. But the only big pot of money left to him poor-people programs. So by simple process of elimination, poor-people programs will have to be cut dramatically under a Romney presidency. Around 40 percent of projected spending, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.